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NMSU faculty create institute to study Rio Grande Rift

Many residents of southern New Mexico don't realize that they are living in an active geologic landscape: the Rio Grande rift. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and fossils millions of years old are all part of what researchers at New Mexico State University plan to study with help from the newly established Southern Rift Institute.

A group of faculty members in New Mexico State University’s Department of Geological Sciences have formed the Southern Rift Institute to raise funds for research of the Rio Grande Rift. From Left, Emily Johnson, Reed Burgette, Jeffrey Amato and Brian Hampton are seen here at Gardiner Hall. (NMSU photo by Andres Leighton)

Four NMSU geology professors with overlapping interests in the geology and tectonic history of the southern Rio Grande rift have joined forces to create the institute, which is dedicated to obtaining funding to support student-involved research. “The Rio Grande rift is one of the world’s classic continental rifts and it is literally in our backyard. The easy access to rock formations makes this an excellent natural laboratory for better understanding the history of continental rifting,” said Jeff Amato, geology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and one of the four collaborators.

One example of the preservation of fossils in the rift was the discovery of a 3 million year-old fossilized jawbone of a tapir found by one of Amato’s graduate students. An article on this was published recently in the journal New Mexico Geology. Other fossils are likely to be uncovered as the result of the institute’s future research.

“We have a fund for tax-deductible donations set up through the NMSU Foundation called Southern Rift Institute in Geological Sciences,” Amato said. “The institute’s faculty have ongoing collaborations but we wanted to formalize these relationships with the goal of obtaining research funding that will support our work and the graduate students who assist us.”

The assistant professors involved in the project are Emily Johnson, Brian Hampton and Reed Burgette.

Johnson is a volcanologist and is interested in the young volcanic history of the rift. “Volcanic eruptions have occurred in the southern rift up through about 3000 years ago, which means future eruptions are possible,” said Johnson. “I’m interested in studying the styles, frequency, and locations of past volcanic eruptions, and how fast the magmas rose up to the surface; these topics are all important for assessing possible future volcanic hazards in the rift.”

Burgette’s focus is neotectonics and earthquakes and he is interested in determining the rates of uplift in the region. “Many of the mountain ranges in our area, including the Organ, San Andres, and Sacramento Mountains, have fault scarps which attest to the prehistoric occurrence of strong earthquakes,” Burgette said. “I am interested in applying modern surveying and dating methods to better understand the rate of deformation and seismic hazard in the southern rift area.”

Amato is a professor of structural geology and geochronology. “My focus is on rifting from about 15 million years to 3 million years ago, and Burgette’s research is on the more recent extension. The entire history of the rift spans up to 36 million years so we have a vast amount of research in the coming years.”

Hampton is a sedimentary geologist interested in studying the age of eroded sediment and how that sediment is distributed throughout the rift. "Depositional systems like the Rio Grande are sensitive to changes in tectonic conditions in the rift," says Hampton. "Studying both modern and ancient river deposits in the Rio Grande rift will help with understanding uplift, erosion, and sedimentation on both human and geologic timescales. Sedimentary layers contain an excellent record of past life and also house much of the Mesilla Basin’s groundwater aquifer resources."

“This is another way of supporting student research. This institute can provide funding we need to write proposals for some of the larger grants, which are very competitive,” said Amato.

The Southern Rift Institute led a field trip to the Prehistoric Trackways Monument during NMSU's homecoming weekend. There, faculty and geology alumni were able to look at rift geology and fossils and meet with students. “The initial response from alumni was enthusiastic, with some already pledging support,” said Hampton.

The results of this study will be shared with the public through lectures and field trips for donors. Amato said, “People living in the Las Cruces area already appreciate the scenery of the region, but I think they would also like to learn how dynamic our landscape is, and how rifting is responsible for both the mountains and the rivers, as well as the aquifer that forms the source for most of our drinking water.”

The Southern Rift Institute is one of the organizations open for donations during NMSU’s Giving Tuesday, Nov. 28. To donate, visit and under fund, search for fund not listed and enter The Southern Rift Institute in the Department of Geology.